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New York City Theater

"Trial by Water"
Culture Project, Manhattan

The best of intentions do not necessarily produce the best of plays! Such is the case with Qui Nguyen’s “Trial By Water,” a flawed piece indeed!

This Vietnamese playwright has taken on the agonizing ordeals of the Vietnamese boat people as they attempt to escape their country and its oppressive regime. What could be more worthy than to bring these stories to the world? But “Trial By Water,” as it turns out, is far too lengthy, gory, and repetitive. And this, despite the fact that it runs only eighty minutes without intermission. But it is an interminable eighty minutes.

“Trial By Water” traces the saga of two brothers, 15 and 13 years old, sent off by their parents to an aunt in America, but in a decrepit boat. Though much is unclear because actors rush through their lines in time of great emotion (three-fourths of the time), reasons for the family break-up do emerge. The father is a fighter against their country’s regime and hence in great danger, and the mother chooses to stay with him. But the children must be saved. The older son Hung is ordered to care for his younger brother Huy. Moreover, they are cautioned to speak to no one on board, to keep to themselves. They are sent off with enough food for the one-week trip to the Philippines. But the boat breaks down, and they drift for many weeks, with passengers resorting to murder and cannibalism to stay alive. Hung, a Buddhist, is forced to make difficult moral decisions as the story unfolds.

So much for plot. As to dialogue, one must give the playwright credit for very touching, believable exchanges between the responsible, caring older brother and the rebellious, wise-guy younger brother. But, despite these exchanges, the repetition of text creates a story which feels interminable.

Problems of the production are further exacerbated by the players themselves. The lines they deliver, when frought with passion, are often unintelligible. The one most guilty of this offense is Genevieve DeVeyra, who plays the younger brother, though she does get the body movements and gestures just right. Though less frequently, the other players Dinh Q. Doan (Hung), Arthur Acuna (Tien Ngo), Jojo Gonzales (the father), and Karen Tsen Lee (the mother) also offer garbled speeches in moments of great emotion.

The most striking, satisfying aspects of “Trial By Water” is its staging under John Gould Rubin’s direction. Puppets, puppeteers, and cast members, attired as Vietnamese peasants, move across the stage in a kind of slow-moving, menacing ballet, creating an effective, poetic mood.

All told, the negatives far outweigh the positives at this point. And if “Trial By Water” is to realize its potential, there is work to be done. One hopes, given the significance of this Vietnamese story, that revisions will come.

-- Irene Backalenick
March 26, 2006

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